In most of his films, director and screenwriter Alexander Payne offers a wry, forgiving look at the persistent travails of everyday life. He has favored down-to-earth characters (sometimes based in his Omaha hometown) struggling with relationship troubles, economic drudgery and life’s short span in features including “Sideways,” “About Schmidt” and “Nebraska.” Until now, his furthest voyage from his comfort zone was 2011’s “The Descendants,” with George Clooney playing a Hawaiian land owner facing very similar challenges in a Pacific paradise.
Now Payne has taken his special brand of raw honesty, compassionate intelligence and uncomfortable humor to a Gulliver-like universe. “Downsizing,” which opens Friday, is his first sci-fi environmentalist romantic comedy. Here, a chubby everyman and his wife (played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) sign up to be miniaturized through a revolutionary new procedure. It will let them live like royalty (small luxuries are inexpensive) while reducing their effect on nature. As one character comments, “People become small to have the things only the rich could afford.”
With that surreal premise, the film creates an emotional roller coaster. Even condensed to 5 inches tall, fate can trap you in a mundane corporate cubicle and an alienating lifestyle. Decrease your impact on the world if you want, but don’t expect it to reduce its impact on you.
As Payne put it discussing the Lilliputian world of “Downsizing” in a recent phone conversation, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Payne said because he came of age in the 1970s “when movies were very real,” he and his longtime writing partner Jim Taylor have the same aim. “We’re always thinking about what’s funny, what’s dramatic, what’s real and what’s surprising. After that, as a director I very much want the texture of the films,” the casting, the choice of locations and the rhythm in which the film is told, “to be more like life than like a Hollywood movie.”
Such was the case in “Downsizing,” even though it is a very special-effects-heavy movie. “I think we do look not just to movies but to art in general to be some kind of mirror. In a kind way, it’s nice if a movie can tell people, ‘You are not alone.’ Even George Clooney might have to deal with problems with children, with the wife, with the hideous greedy family members, that sort of thing. Maybe even Matt Damon can’t make ends meet or has a wife he can never please. That’s what I like, the naturalism.”
Playing for laughs
He also values a sense of humor and charm, not simply because they make movies more entertaining but to move the plot along in delightful ways.
“I want to get laughs from recognition of truth,” he said. Even if a character is “a little stereotyped or a little exaggerated, you do that sometimes to invite recognition of the truths beneath them. The laugh and the knowing laugh.”
Still, he does confess to “doing a lot of cheap joking. You do get to see Matt Damon getting a colonic in this one. That’s pretty cheap.”
Payne had never before made a film as technically demanding as “Downsizing,” a project he created even though “I wasn’t necessarily looking to make a visual-effects movie. I was just looking for a way to make this story.”
The challenge of making the film look convincing came from the fact that most action-driven visual-effects movies are composed of very short shots, “and the audience doesn’t have a chance to let its eye wander and see what might not be convincing in the shot.” Payne’s shots “were on a normal, even a long time, and I wanted the visual effects to be so real as to be utterly believable and even banal. You know, as lived-in as if I had found a location. I’m glad I did it. It was a wonderful education” in Pixar-style filmmaking magic.
But not so wonderful that he completely abandoned location shooting, as evidenced by his Scandinavian side trip to film a long sequence of boating through fjords in Norway.
An international cast
Payne assembled a globe-spinning supporting cast for his international small world, balancing Jason Sudeikis, Laura Dern and Neil Patrick Harris as tiny advocates for the shrinking program against legendary German horror star Udo Kier as one of Damon’s new neighbors in tiny town and Christoph Waltz, who actively campaigned for the part of his backslapping, deal-making Serbian friend next door.
Payne made contact with areas around the world that have sizable Vietnamese communities to find the right actress to play the bossy, bickering but delightful woman Damon meets after his wife decides that downsizing isn’t for her. As it turned out, the best candidate lived in Hollywood. Hong Chau had worked in film and television a bit, but wasn’t a household name, a situation that her presence in Payne’s film will correct.
“That’s really one of the most satisfying experiences for me as a director, to find the right person for the right part,” Payne said, just as he cast the formidable senior citizen June Squibb in “Nebraska” and the then mostly overlooked Shailene Woodley in “The Descendants.”
“Nobody else could have played that part. It’s like Liza Minnelli in ‘Cabaret’ or Tatum O’Neal in ‘Paper Moon.’ You just have exactly the right person at exactly the right age and time and part, where everything comes together.”